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Rehoming Hope

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Like scenes from a feverish dream, an entire Near Eastside block appears upside down. A miasma of yapping, running dogs -- the neighborhood gossips -- swirls past, followed by ghostlike children on bikes whose images flash across the wall as a muted blur inside the dim room of this lifeless house.

These are the images one sees when looking through the specially designed camera obscura in one of the upstairs rooms of the vacant two-story, three-bedroom abode at 804 Eastern Ave. Similar to a pinhole camera, the obscura uses a tiny opening in a window to project the light and streetscape from outside onto the wall of the darkened room.

Like a lost soul, the abandoned home had remained empty, a shell of its former self. But, for now at least, the "pilot house" for the House Life Project gives artists and neighbors a unique place to connect and create. It stands as a work space and gallery for artists and a social gathering center for neighbors.

Its camera obscura room exists as a temporary project by Shelley Given, a visiting assistant professor of photography at Indiana University in Bloomington, who moved to Indianapolis two years ago from southwestern Kentucky.

One goal of the House Life Project is to engage in a dialogue about community memory and a sense of place. - COURTESY THE HOUSING LIFE PROJECT
  • Courtesy the Housing Life Project
  • One goal of the House Life Project is to engage in a dialogue about community memory and a sense of place.

Given is one of six artists working in The House Life Project , an initiative based on the Near Eastside of Indianapolis to explore the creative, civic and social capital of vacant properties by fostering relationships between artists, residents and the community stakeholders.

The project is a collaboration between Renew Indianapolis, a not-for-profit landbank, the Indianapolis Museum of Contemporary Art with support from the Efroymson Family Fund, and the City of Indianapolis.

"The problem is that most often in real estate we wait for the market to show up, but if the market is not there -- if it's not deemed valuable in market terms -- then it can be left just sitting there," says Meredith Brickell, who is the project leader for the House Life team.

Associate Professor of Art at DePauw University, Brickell's work focusses on creating public conversation through art by inviting community members to experience place and space in new ways. Several of her projects have already taken place in the Near Eastside, including one in partnership with an elementary school in the St. Clair Place neighborhood, where the public is invited to admire the clouds from her Cloud Observatory.

"While we are waiting for the market to come around and turn this into the perfect little neighborhood, how can we use these spaces? Can they have value? It's a very 'art' question: 'What's the value of this place outside of the real estate market?' That's one of the big questions that I've asked with this house," says the artist.

And then she offers a possible answer: "There's all of this social value, cultural value, community value -- with an investment, of course. But the real estate market is not going to ask those kinds of questions."

An abandoned home is often taken simply as a sign of crime and low property values. In a city where more than 8,000 blighted properties oscillate between the demolition list and wishful thinking, Brickell's questions are a welcome solution.

Children play outside an eyesore turned art project on the Near Eastside. Indianapolis has as many as 8,000 vacant homes.  - COURTESY THE HOUSING LIFE PROJECT
  • Courtesy the Housing Life Project
  • Children play outside an eyesore turned art project on the Near Eastside. Indianapolis has as many as 8,000 vacant homes.

Renew Indianapolis, that manages and administers the property being used by HLP in the St. Clair Place neighborhood, understood immediately the value that the project held for its organization. Renew Indianapolis understands firsthand the challenges of bringing a property back to commerce.

"I think it is early to say what will come out of the project, having the property back would be a setback. It would be ideal if someone would like to live there, but how can we continue to have a presence there?" says Scarlett Martin, a Fellow of Renew Indianapolis.

HLP is participatory by design and with neighbors involved in the very foundation of its planning, the effort to revive blighted urban areas through art has real and long-lasting potential.

Brent Aldrich, who in addition to serving as a board member for iMOCA and being one of the artists involved in the project, has personal ties to the Near Eastside. It's his home for one. And he works in community development as project manager for Great Places 2020 at Englewood Community Development Corporation.

The Near Eastside remains a focus of anti-crime and community renewal attention. - COURTESY THE HOUSING LIFE PROJECT
  • Courtesy the Housing Life Project
  • The Near Eastside remains a focus of anti-crime and community renewal attention.

Aldrich recalls feeling like he already knew the HLP house the moment he stepped in, "The HLP house was built by the Southern Lumber Company, the same suburban builders who built my sister's house in the early 1900s. The floorplan is identical to her house, just mirrored. Walking into it for the first time, I already knew it."

This experience had great impact on him, as he incorporates his own recollections to explore how memories and meaning are attached to places. He hopes that while engaging with other neighbors, he can investigate how similar homes in the area have been physically altered through time, as well as how they are being shaped socially and culturally by their inhabitants.

Along with Aldrich, Brickell and Given, artists Katie Hudnall, Wes Janz and Wil Marquez have been hosting a social hour with the neighbors on Tuesdays from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m., while preparing and constructing their projects for the house.

Last week while riding her bike over to the house, Brickell was stopped by a neighbor kid who recognized. The child asked if she would be going to the gathering that evening -- and bringing desserts.

"'I've got the brownies!' I said. I love that the project and the house itself has become a recognizable thing," says Brickell.

With each passing week the project has become more popular among neighbors and even those living on surrounding blocks. "We have people from outside the neighborhood dropping in, like Dan Forrestal our state representative and a woman from Irvington who saw a flyer at Pogue's Run Grocer and became interested," she says.

Katie Hudnall sits with neighborhood children outside the "pilot house."  - COURTESY THE HOUSING LIFE PROJECT
  • Courtesy the Housing Life Project
  • Katie Hudnall sits with neighborhood children outside the "pilot house."

The Near Eastside has seen neighbors come and go and those who remain have put hard work into turning the place where Wonderland once stood into a land of sustainable development where more people will want to put down roots. The common approach of well-meaning fashionable altruism to coat over graffiti has proved time and again that something of greater substance is needed to deal with economic neglect that is all too real for the people who reside in these neighborhoods. It is this same temporary value given to spaces that leads to cycles of gentrification and blight. When the growth is organized and from within there is a better chance for permanence, it becomes a real promise. Neighbors, artists, outsiders, and even The White House are starting to believe in this promise.

The House Life Project's opening weekend kicks off with a free talk this evening, (Thursday) Sept. 17th at 7 p.m. at the Indianapolis Museum of Art,where visiting artists Mike Blockstein and Reanne Estrada from Public Matters in Los Angeles will discuss long-term community change projects through socially engaged art.

Then this Saturday, Sept. 19th from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. HLP artists will offer tours of the house and their projects and provide art activities and complimentary treats from event sponsors Rabble Coffee, Mix Master's, Gomez BBQ and neighborhood darlings Gordon's Ice Cream Parlor. The event is free and open to the public.

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